Subject Complement

Consider the highlighted phrases in the examples below.

  • The rice is marvellous. [S1A-022 #262]
  • He was a really nice guy. [S1A-006 #21]

Each of the highlighted phrases adds information about the person or thing picked out by the Subject. Marvellous attributes a property to the rice, and a really nice guy does the same for he.

These phrases have different forms but the same function.

In terms of form, marvellous is an adjective phrase, and a really nice guy is a noun phrase.

However, they have the same function, which is called Subject Complement. The UK National Currciulum simply uses the term Complement

In our examples, the Subject Complement comes after the Predicator (the verb) and is needed to form a complete clause.

If someone said The rice is, we would wonder The rice is what?

This is the basic clause pattern:

Subject

Predicator

Subject Complement

The rice

is

marvellous

He

was

a really nice guy

Verbs that need a Subject Complement after them are called linking verbs (also called copulas or copular verbs), because they link the Subject and the Subject Complement.

Our examples have different forms of the verb be (is and was).

Be is a very common linking verb and is used to talk about states (unchanging situations). Some linking verbs are used to talk about changing situations, e.g. She got angry.

Key points

The Subject Complement typically:

  • gives more information about the person or thing picked out by the Subject
  • typically takes the form of an adjective phrase or noun phrase
  • comes after the Predicator (the verb) to complete the clause

Here are some more examples of adjective phrases as Subject Complements. See if you can pick out the Subject Complement in each example.

  • That sounded very bizarre. [S1A-014 #120]
That sounded very bizarre.
  • I felt quite ignorant.[S1A-002 #83]
I felt quite ignorant.
  • He gets angry with Lottie and Jacob sometimes. [W2F-007 #107]
He gets angry with Lottie and Jacob sometimes.
  • That’s true. [S1A-005 #92]
That’s true.

Here are some more examples of noun phrases as Subject Complements:

  • He then became a Conservative puppet. [W2F-017 #79]
  • I am a secretary. [S1A-014 #88]
  • Fortunately Loyer is a very unusual name in London. [W2B-002 #30]
  • He was apparently a very popular person. [S1A-003 #53]

You may have noticed that other elements are sometimes added to the basic clause pattern. These are typically optional Adverbials, which can be found in various positions in the clause: e.g. sometimes, fortunately, in London.

In the last example the optional Adverbial apparently comes between the Predicator and the Subject Complement.

Look at the noun phrase a really nice guy in the examples below. In each example it follows the Predicator and completes the clause. But can you see a difference in the way it functions? How many people are we talking about in each example?

  • Matt is a really nice guy.
  • Sophie invited a really nice guy.

In the first example we are only talking about one person, Matt, who is named in the Subject. The phrase a really nice guy adds information about him – it functions as Subject Complement.

In the second example, we are talking about two people: one called Sophie, and somebody she invited. Here a really nice guy does not add information about Sophie, but refers to a person that she invited, who is identified as a nice guy. This is a noun phrase that functions as Direct Object.

We can also apply some grammatical tests to distinguish Subject Complements and Direct Objects (SC and DO for short):

  • The Subject Complement can be an adjective phrase but the Direct Object cannot. (We can have Matt is really nice, but not *Sophie invited really nice.)
  • The Direct Object can often become the Subject of a passive, but the Subject Complement cannot. (We can have A really nice guy was invited, but not *A really nice guy was been.)

Note that 'Subject Complement' is not a statutory term in the National Curriculum, i.e. it does not have to be taught at KS1 and KS2.

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